Separated Souls: Uighur journalist’s unbreakable resolve to help her detained family
Source: Amnesty International
Gulchehra Hoja still remembers the first time her daughter, then three years old, met her grandparents. “That was their happiest time,” Gulchehra said of her parents. “They treated her like a princess.”
That was 10 years ago. It was her daughter’s first time to visit the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China, where Gulchehra grew up. Her husband had travelled with their eldest daughter from Washington DC, Gulchehra’s home for nearly 20 years due to her work as a journalist with Radio Free Asia’s Uighur Service.
Gulchehra had no choice but to miss that family holiday. Her journalism means it is too dangerous for her to visit the XUAR, but she speaks with her parents each week on the phone. At least she did until early February, when she lost contact.
She learned from family friends that her parents had been caught up in a sweep of arrests targeting some 20 members of her family. Now Gulchehra’s mother, Qimangul Zikri, has been released, but her father remains under guard at a hospital, and many of her other family members are still missing.
On 10 March, Gulchehra was finally able to speak with her mother by phone for the first time in over a month. Gulchehra’s three children crowded around her as their grandmother recounted her story by phone: On the evening of 1 February, police arrested Qimangul and questioned her aggressively about Gulchehra. They put a hood over her head and placed her in handcuffs that remained on her wrists for the nine days she spent in a crowded cell.
She and the other inmates shared one toilet and had no access to water for washing. Qimangul is in her seventies and suffers from heart disease. She recently had foot surgery. She felt her blood pressure surging and asked for her heart medicine. The guards gave her some cough drops instead, but Qimangul a pharmacist, wasn’t fooled.
For nine days, she ate cold, unappetizing food. “I ate for you,” Qimangul told her daughter. “I wanted to live.” Her heart disease worsened during her time in jail before police finally delivered her to a hospital. A neighbourhood policeman, who sees Qimangul regularly, didn’t even recognize her when she finally came home.
“She is brave,” Gulchehra said of her mother. Qimangul’s first concern when Gulchehra was able to reach her was whether her daughter had worried too much. Gulchehra’s father, who is half-paralyzed following a stroke, and was in a hospital already at the time of the arrests, remains there under guard.
The Chinese government has been harassing Gulchehra’s family for years because of her journalism for Radio Free Asia. She is one of six Washington-based employees of the broadcaster’s Uighur service whose families have been targeted by the Chinese government.
In late September, police also arrested Gulchehra’s brother, Kaisar Keyum, and told their mother it was because of Gulchehra’s reporting. Qimangul had been hoping for news on her son when she too was arrested.
The detentions come amid a wider crackdown in the XUAR. What the Chinese government describes as a campaign against extremism and separatism has expanded to mass detentions of tens of thousands of peaceful Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnicities. They are sent to various detention facilities which have been set up within the XUAR, which the authorities label as “counter extremism centres”, “political study centres”, or “education and transformation centres”.
The government also restricts the Uighur culture, language, and religion. Radio Free Asia is one of only a few media outlets to report on the issue in depth and the only major outlet to do so in the Uighur language.
After graduating from university, Gulchehra worked for Xinjiang TV, where she created the first children’s TV programme on the history of the XUAR. For her first television appearance she wore a floral hat and her hair in two ponytails, an iconic Uighur image. Gulchehra’s father encouraged her to think of the programme as more than entertainment. “Teach them to think,” he told Gulchehra. “Teach them to be proud of being Uighur.”
When she was 27 years old, Gulchehra traveled to Europe for vacation. There, she listened to a radio bulletin about a protest by Uighur people in Germany against the Chinese government. She said it was the first time she’d ever heard such powerful and brave voices. At the same time, she was facing increased pressure by the Chinese authorities at home to tow the party line on her children’s show.
“I asked myself what I was doing,” she said. “Am I loving my people, using my voice? My heart was pounding.”
Give up everything
After three more agonizing days in Europe, Gulchehra called the director of Uighur services at Radio Free Asia. She told him she was ready to work for them. The director knew of her already because of her television show. He asked if she was ready to give up everything. She might not be able to return home. She would face harassment. She said yes.
Gulchehra didn’t tell her parents about her decision, because she feared they would talk her out of it. She waited until she was safely in the USA before calling. Her father answered the phone. She told him she was in America, working for Radio Free Asia. After about 10 seconds of shocked silence, he said, “Oh, my brave girl.”
Her mother also worried, but said that if Gulchehra felt her decision was right, and if she was happy, it was enough for them. Following Gulchehra’s move to the USA, Chinese authorities threatened her parents and took their passports. Gulchehra lost contact with nearly all her old friends. She understands why they stopped talking to her, but that didn’t make it any easier.
That was 17 years ago. Gulchehra has worked for Radio Free Asia’s Uighur service ever since. And police haven’t stopped harassing her family.
Gulchehra thinks a lot about her family and her decision to come to America. And she knows she has to continue reporting and speaking out, because if she and her colleagues stop, no one would be able to fill the gap.
She thinks of her cousins, who worked hard to establish a successful business in Xinjiang and are now held in detention. She thinks of an aunt who is caring for her three grandchildren, ages 2, 8, and 10, while her two sons and daughters-in-law are detained too.
Gulchehra remembers something her father said, when her eldest daughter was born. He told her he was so happy, but now he felt his soul was separated. Gulchehra said that she too feels her soul is separated now between Washington and the XUAR.
She thinks about bringing her parents to the USA but her mother thinks that would be impossible. “Even a fly cannot get out of Xinjiang now,” she told her daughter.
Gulchehra feels she has to continue working to get her family released and to speak out in the meantime. “If this is how they treat a woman in her seventies, what is happening to my brother?” she asked. “Even if they are all set free, that fear still lives with me,” she said. “When will the nightmare start again? What can I do? Who can I talk to? Who is going to care about us?”
Uighur Muslims Around the World Protest China’s Aggressive Security Crackdown
Author: Gerry Shih
(BEIJING) — Members of the Uighur Muslim ethnic group held demonstrations in cities around the world to protest a sweeping Chinese surveillance and security campaign that has sent thousands of their people into detention and political indoctrination centers.
Overseas Uighur activists said they planned demonstrations Thursday in 14 countries in total, including the U.S., Australia and Turkey.
More than a hundred Uighur protesters gathered at a plaza near the United Nations in New York to call on the body to protect their culture against Chinese government efforts to assimilate the Turkic-speaking people. Elsewhere, hundreds of Uighur women on Istanbul’s Istiklal Street and in front of Sydney Town Hall chanted and waved blue flags, the separatist symbol for a proposed independent state called East Turkistan.
China has rolled out one of the world’s most aggressive policing programs in the Uighurs’ homeland of Xinjiang, a vast region in the country’s northwest. Chinese officials say the crackdown is necessary to stamp out a decades-long separatist movement and, more recently, Islamic extremism seeping into the region. Hundreds have died in violent clashes in recent years that the government blames on separatist militants.
Growing resentment against authorities in China, and the call of Islamist Uighur militant groups, has also attracted thousands of Uighurs to travel to Syria in recent years. But Uighur activists and international rights groups say the far-reaching security campaign, which has accelerated markedly since 2016, exacerbates tensions and unfairly targets the entire Uighur population of more than 10 million.
“The Chinese government is using the war against terrorism very effectively, using that to portray the Uighur as a terrorist,” said Rushan Abbas, the organizer of the New York protest who showed up with her children. “In actuality, the Chinese government is the one who’s acting the terrorist against the Uighur.”
Many overseas Uighurs say that their relatives in China have been sent to an extrajudicial network of political indoctrination centers for months at a time without formal charges or for reasons unrelated to separatist activity — such as communicating with relatives abroad.
“Can you imagine a place where millions are taken into camps without the involvement of courts?” said Seyit Tumturk, who helped organize the Istanbul rally.
Allegations of widespread abuse in the centers, including unexplained deaths, have been rife but are almost impossible to confirm, given the extreme level of surveillance and government obstruction of independent reporting trips by foreign media. Associated Press reporters were detained for 11 hours by police in Xinjiang in November while investigating the reported death of a 26-year-old in an indoctrination center.
Tumturk, a Turkey-based activist who is backed by some Turkish political parties, has been meeting with various governments including Japan and Australia in recent months to seek support for a new overseas Uighur political group.
His movement would call for the establishment of an independent Uighur state allied with Turkey and Central Asian states and distance itself from the World Uighur Congress, the historically dominant, U.S.-funded Uighur lobby that advocates worldwide for greater autonomy for Xinjiang but not outright independence from China.
Tumturk said he was motivated by a sense of urgency.
“We have received a lot of bad news that the situation in China is getting worse and worse,” he said.
China has tightened restrictions over the instruction of Islam and the Uighur language and even what Uighurs are allowed to name their babies in an effort to swiftly assimilate the minority group into the Chinese mainstream, which is dominated by the Han ethnic group.
Government officials say the assimilation process will bring economic benefits to poor parts of Xinjiang, promote secularism and reinforce a sense of “patriotism” among Uighurs. Uighur activists warn that the heavy-handed methods could render traditional Uighur culture practically extinct in a matter of a few decades.
Uighurs face a raft of other hurdles not imposed upon the Han: they have difficulty procuring passports and those who have them are required to leave them with the police. In Xinjiang, frequent road blocks and checkpoints enable authorities to stop people and check their mobile phones for content that might be deemed suspicious.
International groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have called Xinjiang, an area half the size of India, one of the most tightly policed regions in the world.